Los Angeles - The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles must release the names of church leaders and paedophile priests identified in thousands of pages of internal documents recounting sexual abuse allegations dating back decades, a judge ruled on Monday.
The decision by California Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias overturned much of a 2011 order by another judge that would have allowed the archdiocese to black out the names of church higher-ups. Victims, as well as AP and Los Angeles Times, argued for the names to be public.
Elias said she weighed the privacy rights of priests and others - including those who are mentioned in the documents but were not accused of any wrongdoing - against the public's interest in learning details of the child abuse that prompted the archdiocese to agree to a record $660m settlement with victims in 2007.
"Don't they have the right to know what happened in their local church?" Elias said before ruling from the bench.
The documents include letters and memos between top church officials and their attorneys, medical and psychological records, complaints from parents and, in some cases, correspondence with the Vatican about abusive priests. There are approximately 30 000 pages and it wasn't immediately clear how soon they would be released.
Elias stipulated that some redactions of people who played no major role would be allowed, and attorneys for the plaintiffs and church were discussing how to do so.
The sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church has played out in many dioceses around America, with victims receiving huge settlements.
Files released in other places, such as Boston, have shown the church shuffled predator priests among parishes without calling police.
Both plaintiffs' and church attorneys said on Monday they want the documents released as soon as possible.
"Our client's objective is to get this over with," church attorney Michael Hennigan said.
Attorneys for the archdiocese previously said they planned to make the confidential files public by the middle of this month with the names of the church hierarchy blacked out. A set of documents with the redactions already was prepared and Hennigan said it's not clear how long it will take to produce a new set with far fewer redactions.
"We have to see how big this mountain is," he said outside of court.
Plaintiffs' lawyer Ray Boucher believes it should take less than a month. He said the names revealed in the documents could range from priests at local churches to those in the Vatican.
Hennigan said recently retired Cardinal Roger Mahony doesn't object to having his name appear when the files are released.
"This is a very important and significant step," Boucher said. "Clearly my preference would be that the files not be redacted and the full files be released. But I understand there's a need to get out these files as soon as possible."
The 2007 settlement stipulated that personnel files would be made public, but more than 20 accused priests went to court to block the release, arguing that making their files public would violate their privacy rights.
In 2011, Judge Dickran Tevrizian ruled the documents could be heavily redacted. He said the release of the files should not be used to "embarrass or to ridicule the church".
He said the public could figure out which church leaders were responsible for how molesting priests were handled by matching the documents' date and location with a roster of the archdiocese staff at the time.